Dr. Ervin Yen is angry about Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic, so angry that he thinks Stitt should lose his job.
And Yen intends to be the one to try and take it.
While Republicans in other states have criticized governors for taking too much action during the public health crisis, Yen, a 65-year-old anesthesiologist and former state senator, is going in the opposite direction. He’s alarmed that his home state’s leader hasn’t done more as the coronavirus continues to ravage their state, and is mounting a campaign for governor to challenge Stitt in the 2022 GOP primary, even though the governor has yet to say whether he’ll run again.
“The more deaths I see every day, the more ticked off I get at the lack of a response from our state government,” Yen told The Daily Beast.
Odds at winning are already long for Yen, who served one term in the state senate and lost his re-election effort in a 2018 GOP primary after he spent his time in office under fire for his work to boost vaccination rates for children.
“I’m sure that if an election was held today that he’d beat me,” Yen said of Stitt. “Not very many people know me in Oklahoma, but a whole bunch of people know the governor. But two years from now, things could look drastically different.”
Even if he can’t beat him, Yen is determined to try and influence Stitt’s approach to the pandemic.
In his campaign announcement, Yen made clear that the state “desperately needs a mask mandate covering all 77 counties,” saying later “it will save lives.”
“At the least, maybe I can help sway what (Stitt) does,” Yen said in an interview this week. “At the most, maybe I can be governor and do some great things for this state especially in terms of the health of Oklahomans.”
The governor’s office referred questions about Yen’s run and criticism of the governor to a campaign consultant who then declined to comment, but added that “the governor has not yet announced his intentions for 2022.”
Federal officials on the White House Coronavirus Task Force warned in their Nov. 8 report that the state was “in the red zone for cases,” putting it at the “22nd highest rate” nationwide for new cases out of 100,000 population, while its test positivity was the “11th highest” across the United States.
“The unyielding COVID spread across Oklahoma continues with new hospital admissions, inpatients, and patients in the ICU at record levels, indicating deeper spread across the state,” the task force said in the report. “The most recent trends, showing steep inclines across all indicators, need immediate action including mask requirements to decrease severity in morbidity and mortality among Oklahomans.”
Stitt took a lax approach to restrictions throughout the pandemic and rushed to begin reopening the state when such action became a Republican proving ground of sorts around late April. Stitt himself tested positive for COVID-19 in July, but even that did not deter him from ignoring the recommendations of the White House Coronavirus Task Force to require masks statewide in the weeks that followed.
The effort for Yen at the moment appears to be an “uphill battle,” said Matt Motta, a political scientist at Oklahoma State University who studies American politics and public health.
“Dr. Yen’s entry into the race shows that some Oklahomans are dissatisfied with Gov. Stitt’s performance,” Motta said. “But campaigning on coronavirus alone is not going to be enough to win him this office. He’s going to have to draw other distinctions from the governor.”
Yen’s state Senate win back in 2014 gave him the distinction of being the first Asian-American to win a seat in the Oklahoma Legislature, according to KGOU radio. Yen has also decried the push to privatize Medicaid and could make a further effort to distinguish himself on health policy from the governor in the lengthy wait until the primary, though the pandemic was the topic the doctor has largely been focused on in his campaign rollout.
During a press conference Tuesday, Stitt was joined by health-care professionals amid warnings of “significant increases” in key coronavirus metrics as they pleaded for people to wear masks even without it being a government requirement. Stitt echoed that call and urged people in his state not to become complacent. But moments later, he still resisted going as far as a statewide mask mandate despite telling reporters at the same event “we need to really flatten this curve.”
“As far as a mandate, I’ve been very clear that I don’t think that’s the right to do,” Stitt said. “This is a personal responsibility, this is pleading with people to do the right thing.”
Even before the pandemic, public health wasn’t Stitt’s strong suit. During Stitt’s 2018 run for governor, The Daily Beast reported that the Republican had made questionable comments about vaccines, telling an audience “I believe in choice and we’ve got six children and we don’t vaccinate, we don’t do vaccinations on all of our children. So we definitely pick and choose which ones we’re going to do. And it’s gotta be up to the parents. We can never mandate that.”
Stitt’s campaign later derided the story on its website, despite it accurately quoting him, pointing to a local newspaper’s editorial that the campaign said showed, among other things, that Stitt’s children were in fact vaccinated.
During his time in the state senate, Yen tried to pass legislation that he described as a “no brainer,” that “Oklahoma will only have an exemption for medical reasons for the school mandated vaccines.” That push, he said, “wasn’t anywhere close to successful.”
“In fact I came up against all kinds of attacks because of it,” Yen said.
Yen was defeated by 20 points in a June 2018 GOP primary, though his challenger went on to lose the seat by 19 points to a Democrat in that year’s general election, according to state election results.
That defeat wasn’t far from some local observers’ minds as he announced his run for governor. Robbie White, the chair of the Oklahoma County Democratic Party, was doubtful about Yen’s chances, saying “I don’t see him really being a big factor, and I could be wrong.”
“He is a big proponent of vaccines, which makes me happy,” White said. “And he is a doctor who follows science, which also is very important. But in Oklahoma that doesn’t win you votes in the Republican party.”
Linda Huggard, the state committeewoman for the Oklahoma County Republican Party, said at the moment she’d still side with the governor.
“I can’t see Dr. Yen gaining hardly any traction at all with me or anyone in the Republican party,” said Huggard, who is also the vice chair of the Republican party’s fifth congressional district.
Yen’s campaign hasn’t exactly gotten off to a splashy start. While Yen has been the subject of Oklahoma media coverage as he started his campaign in the wake of the 2020 election, it still lacks some of the hallmarks one would expect from a well-organized rollout. There was no campaign announcement video and while Yen said this week his campaign has secured a domain name but the site wasn’t up and running by the time he announced.
His early filing appears to have also been done with state ethics rules in mind, as his campaign moved around $159,000 in campaign funds from a 2018 state Senate committee that had to be dissolved to the new account created for governor last week.
“I thought that if I did this on election day that that might send a good message to our governor,” Yen said. “Here's a governor that in my mind is trying to be a mini-Trump and on the same day that Trump loses that he gets a Republican challenger.”
But even with that in mind, the doctor admitted he voted for Trump, despite saying the president “failed at COVID.” Pressed about why he voted for Trump given how the president has handled the pandemic and treated medical professionals, Yen said he “was torn.”
“I knew in Oklahoma he was going to win,” he said. “And it made no difference how I voted.”
-With additional reporting from Sam Stein